Invisible Strings: What Connects Us
오랜만이야 (Oraenmaniya), or long time, no see. It's been a while since our last life update, but that's because a lot of life has been lived over the past year. I have many stories to share with you from Korea, but, before getting to that, I first want to share with you a gift that will assist in the telling of them. Close your eyes, and hold out your hand. With your eyes closed, feel what seems to be a thread, or maybe a yarn, barely touching your fingertips. Let your fingers strum the line, realizing it's held in place by two, unknown fixed points. With your eyes still closed, let's now follow where it goes.
You aren't exactly sure how, but you can tell we're working our way backwards on the string, moving steadily into the past. Occasionally, you can feel what seem to be tiny knots along the way too, connecting other strings to the main string. Whenever your hand reaches one of these, you briefly open your fist to pass over the intersection. Each time you do, you can hear moments taking place: a conversation by a stream between two friends about staying in Korea for another year (Monday, September 13th, 2021), a birthday party in an apartment where a kitten is meowing (Saturday, September 11th, 2021), and a phone call with a friend who has to make a difficult decision (Wednesday, September 8th, 2021). Without following the strings further into these moments, you can sense they are connected to other strings as well, an infinite web of strings all connected to one another.
I wanted to first give you a glimpse into how these strings work before guiding you to some of the most notable intersections of the past year. Studying these strings has been a passion of mine for some time, although I understand many people prefer to ignore them. I personally love the connections, the knots that tie us together. By studying the strings, I've been able to get to where I am today, but I'm getting ahead of myself. You can open your eyes, but don't let go of the main string just yet. Let's move our way back to August of 2021, where several strings intersect for a moment.
It's Tuesday, August 10th, 2021, the first day of Summer English Camp at the school where I teach, Yeomyung School. I walk in with my friend, Darla, who has agreed to be a volunteer at the camp. Darla and I have been friends for over a year now, but our first connection was made on New Year's Eve 2019, the last night before the historic year of 2020. We had no idea as we celebrated at a hotel in Gangnam, Seoul, just how much the world was about to change. Darla and I would eventually go our separate ways in the spring of 2020 for over a year due to the pandemic, but we would reconnect over social media in the fall of 2020 about the possibility of teaching again with Fulbright.
In the fall of 2020, I was working for an international port in Brunswick, Georgia. I enjoyed my time in Georgia, and, in addition to making a lot of new friends, I was able to spend many special moments with my Aunt Leslie and Uncle Mack while I was there for five months. I frequently felt during that time, though, that something was pulling me back to Korea. I found strings in places I didn't expect: a taxi from Seoul that was driven off one of the boats at the port where I worked and a connection with a husband and wife who owned the only Korean restaurant in Brunswick—both moments that reminded me my time in Korea was not yet finished. On Wednesday, September 16th, 2020, I messaged Darla to tell her I had submitted my renewal application to Fulbright Korea and learned she had done the same. We both were unsure about whether or not we would be accepted for another year, or where we would be placed in Korea, but Darla knew she wanted to teach high schoolers again, and I knew I wanted to continue working with students from North Korea at one of the North Korean Defector (NKD) schools in either Busan or Seoul.
Working with students from North Korea has always been my purpose for being in Korea. It's what I wrote about in my Fulbright application, and it was why I was placed in Jeonju my first year—the city had a Hana Center, a facility where I could volunteer with students from North Korea after school. This purpose originated from a string that's been tied to my heart since I was in high school. In 2014, I skipped school one day after learning an organization called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) was hosting an event at my sister's university. At the event, I heard the story of Yeonmi Park, a girl who had escaped from North Korea at a young age before being relocated to South Korea and eventually moving to the United States. Her story was what first inspired me to want to work with students from North Korea. Fulbright Korea, however, doesn't allow grantees to teach at an NKD school their first year in the program—a rule I disliked when I first learned about it in 2019, but one I definitely appreciate now after having actually taught at one for the last year.
I wasn't ready to teach at an NKD school when I first came to Korea, but my time in Jeonju definitely prepared me. I applied for a second year with Fulbright Korea for this exact reason, and I was placed at Yeomyung School as my main school, an NKD school in the heart of Seoul. While I was placed at Yeomyung for my second grant year, Darla was placed at Seoul Science High School for her third, and final, year with Fulbright. Darla has been a great friend over the last year, and I've been so thankful that she's also been in Seoul during this time. All of this is what eventually led to the two of us arriving at Yeomyung on the morning of Tuesday, August 10th, for Summer English Camp.
As Darla and I walk into the multipurpose room of my school where all of the volunteers for camp are gathered, I look over and see Pastor Dan and my friend Samuel, two more people who I've shared numerous connections with over the last year, seated beside each other at a ping-pong table that we're using as a meeting table. Pastor Dan and I met for the first time at Yeomyung in March during my first full month in Seoul. Yeomyung School, like nearly all NKD schools in Korea, is a Christian school, and Pastor Dan teaches a Bible class on Friday mornings to a group of students who choose to take it. In our first conversation, I asked him about his church because I'd been looking for one in Seoul. He told me that the name of his church was Grace Mission, and I was able to quickly find their website after looking it up. I made the decision to visit on Sunday, March 14th, 2021, taking two friends along with me. It was on this Sunday that I met Samuel and his family for the first time. Crossing paths with Samuel has been one of my favorite intersections of the past year.
When I first met Samuel, we only were able to talk to each other for a few minutes before and after the church service, but I could tell right away that we were going to be friends. I learned he was a university student in Seoul and that he'd grown up attending Grace Mission Church with his family. We both wanted to get to know each other more so we exchanged contact information and made plans to get lunch the following week after church as well. Before meeting for lunch, though, I shared an important conversation with Pastor Dan during the week at school and learned Samuel was hoping to study abroad in the United States the upcoming school year at a small university in Indiana. Being from Indiana, I immediately asked what university and learned it was Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, a school I knew well that was about 40 minutes away from my parent's home. When I finally sat down for lunch with Samuel, I brought up Taylor University to his surprise.
Samuel was amazed I knew about Taylor University because most people in Korea had never heard of it. He went on to tell me, however, that he was still nervous about studying abroad in the United States because of COVID-19 and the numerous anti-Asian hate crimes that have taken place there recently. Samuel admitted some of his friends had tried to dissuade him from studying abroad for these reasons too. I expressed this worry was valid, but also encouraged him by pointing out how vast the United States is and reminding him that everyone's experience is different. The only way to know for sure what his specific experience in Upland, Indiana was going to be would be to experience it for himself. After telling him about my experience at a similar small, liberal arts university, I could tell Samuel was getting more excited about the possibility of what was to come. In the weeks following our lunch, though, he would run into one more obstacle.
As winter turned to spring in Korea, Samuel learned he was going to need a place to quarantine in Indiana before he would be able to start the school year at Taylor in August. When he mentioned this to me, I told him I knew just the place. After calling my parents, I was happy to report to Samuel that he was more than welcome to stay at our home and my dad would pick him up from the airport. Everything came together in a beautiful moment of connection. Samuel's incredible family later invited me over to their home for lunch after church one Sunday to celebrate. It was an amazing moment of cross-cultural hospitality. As Darla and I joined Samuel, Pastor Dan, and all of the volunteers at the ping-pong meeting table on August 1oth for camp, one week before Samuel would leave for Indiana and meet my parents, I couldn't help but feel thankful to have crossed paths with them.
As our debriefing meeting for the first day of camp is about to begin, one final person enters the multipurpose room. This person is why all of us were gathered together for this moment, and they are the last intersection I would like to highlight in this post. It was this person who encouraged me the most on difficult days during the grant year, this person who helped set up my phone plan and bank account all over again at the beginning of my time back in Korea, and this person who took me out for dinner and even toured me around Yonsei University with her son and introduced me to her husband who works there as the Dean of Yonsei Law School (Saturday, April 3rd, 2021). She was the person who first introduced me to Pastor Dan, too, and the person who later asked me if I had friends who would be willing to help lead a Summer English Camp for our students at Yeomyung School. She was even the person who picked me up from Fulbright Orientation at Korea University Sejong Campus on Friday, February 19th, 2021: my incredible co-teacher, Suzie.
Suzie's life, wisdom, and guidance have allowed for so many intersections over the past year in Korea that I would not have experienced without her. Right from the start of our journey together on the car ride from Jochiwon to Seoul, she took an interest in my story and the intersections that had brought me to Korea. After I told her about how I had heard Yeonmi Park's story when I was in high school and how she had inspired me to want to work with students from North Korea, Suzie was the first person to tell me that Yeonmi had actually studied at Yeomyung while she was in South Korea, something I hadn't known until that moment. I was going to be teaching English classes at the same school where a person who had impacted my story with hers had years earlier been taking English classes.
There have been so many people who have impacted the direction of my life with theirs, and I would not be who I am today if it were not for the stories of all the incredible people I have met throughout my journey. That is why I love studying the strings of life, the connections and intersections that make us who we are, and who we are still becoming, every single day. There are some strings we hold especially close to our hearts and some strings we choose to cut along the way, but what's most important is that we keep tying strings wherever we go. We must continue intersecting and interacting with the people around us, affecting the direction of their strings for the better, and lifting them up rather than pulling their strings down. A string that finds itself not tied to any other strings will often fall. We need connection, we need a support system wherever we find ourselves in the world.
In East Asia, there is a belief often attributed to the person who you are meant to one day marry known in English as the "Red Thread of Fate." In Korean, this is called 청실홍실 (chongsilhongsil). The belief is that there are some people who you are destined to meet in this life and that a red thread is tied to you both, a red thread that can never be broken no matter what happens to either of you. As my co-teacher Suzie pointed out when I mentioned this to her recently, however, having this mindset leaves a lot in the hands of fate. One important aspect of making connections and developing relationships with the people around you is realizing the role you play in tying those strings. I was reminded of this again when I had the opportunity to attend the wedding of Suzie's oldest son in Seoul on Saturday, October 30th, 2021. Love is a series of choices we make every single day.
We don't get to control where or when our life string starts and ends, but we do get to affect the direction of it and all the strings we tie ourselves to along the way. In every moment, we can choose to either interact with the people around us, to intersect our stories with theirs, potentially affecting the direction of their story, or walk by without saying a word. Each day is a new opportunity to tie ourselves to other people for a moment whether it's on New Year's Eve, your first time visiting a new place with unfamiliar people, or a long car ride with someone you just met. I learned from Suzie on our very first car ride together that the name of our school, 여명 (Yeomyung), translates to "dawn" in English. Every relationship we form in this life has a dawn, and we all have the ability to reach out and tie the first knot.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned the gift I was sharing with you might be a yarn, and that's exactly what I gave you. As I learned during my time in Georgia, a yarn can also mean quite a long story. I began this post as well by saying 오랜만이야 (oraenmaniya), or long time, no see, and, as I've returned to Korea this year, this phrase has been my favorite to say when reuniting with old friends and former students who I met during my first year in Korea in 2019. I really didn't know if I was going to be able to return to Korea when we had to leave in the spring of 2020 because of the pandemic, but those strings that were tied in 2019 were what really brought me back here in 2021 (and they are also why I will be returning to Korea for another year with Fulbright in 2022 as well).
Regardless of however much time you have to get to know the people around you in whatever season of life you find yourself in at the moment, keep tying strings. You never know the connections you might find in the process, or how those connections might later find you when you least expect—people have a mysterious way of coming in and out of our lives. After all, the people who often mean the most to us are usually the ones with who we can pick up right where our last strings together were tied, the ones who you can run up to and shout "오랜만이야 (Oraenmaniya)! Long time, no see!" no matter how much time has passed since you were last together. Those people, those friendships, are what make all the strings we tie in this life, every single invisible string, truly worth it in the end.